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Workplace setbacks can have a long-term impact on mental health, research has found. 


04 March 2019 Herpreet Kaur Grewal

A number of studies this month addressed how an inadequate workplace and work practices can take a heavy mental, emotional and physical toll on employees. 

Research by the Centre for Health Service Studies at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research at Kent found that an early redundancy makes your health poorer.

Its study set out to establish what the long-term implications of enforced unemployment are on people over the course of their life, particularly in later life.

Researchers discovered that those who had lost a job early in their careers were 5-6 per cent more likely to rate their health as fair or poor, compared with those who had not.

Compared with the effect of other determinants of health in the analysis, this had an impact on health in later life similar to having five fewer years of education.

Researchers used data from the third wave (2008/09) of the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe to understand how being made redundant within the first 10 years of entering the labour market can have negative effects on health over 30 years later. In total, they examined the data on 946 people who suffered involuntary job losses, with 657 down to lay-offs and 289 because of plant closures.

The median age of those surveyed who lost their job was 22 and they were interviewed an average of 39 years later.

Dr Olena Nizalova, one of the authors, said: “It is well-known that losing your job can have major short-term health implications, but our research demonstrates that the impact can last far longer and lead to life-long negative health impacts. This is a notable finding and it demonstrates that more work needs to be done to understand the full implications of job losses on long-term health and how it can be managed.”

The findings, if replicated in future studies, could help the government to better understand the implication of unemployment in later life in terms of health effects and create policies that take this into account for workers affected, particularly during periods of high unemployment.

The study noted that when younger workers laid off during the Great Recession stemming from the financial crisis of 2007/2008 reach the same age as those surveyed in this sample there would be further opportunities to study the long-term effects of early career job loss.

The paper, The Effect of An Early-Career Involuntary Job Loss on Later Life Health in Europe, was published in the journal Advances in Life Course Research. The authors were Dr Nizalova, University of Kent, Jonas Voßemer and Professor Michael Gebel from the University of Bamberg, and Olga Nikolaieva from the Kyiv School of Economics.  

Working mothers ‘most stressed’ by work

Another study for the British Sociological Association found that biomarkers for chronic stress are 40 per cent higher in women bringing up two children while working full-time.

Working from home and flexitime have no effect on their level of chronic stress; only putting in fewer hours at work helps, says the article documenting the research in the association journal Sociology.

Professor Tarani Chandola of the University of Manchester, and Dr Cara Booker, Professor Meena Kumari and Professor Michaela Benzeval of the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex analysed data on 6,025 participants in Understanding Society’s UK Household Longitudinal Survey, which collects data on working life and readings of measures of stress response, including hormones levels and blood pressure.

They found that the overall level of 11 biomarkers related to chronic stress, including stress-related hormones and blood pressure, was 40 per cent higher if women were working full-time while bringing up two children than it was among childless women working full-time.

Women working full-time and bringing up one child had an 18 per cent higher stress level.

Women with two children who worked reduced hours through part-time work, job share and term-time flexible working arrangements had chronic stress levels 37 per cent lower than those working in jobs where flexitime was not available. 

Those on flexitime or working from home, with no overall reduction in working hours, had no reduction in chronic stress.

Men’s chronic stress markers were also lower if they worked reduced hours, and the effect was about the same as for women.

The academics adjusted the raw data to rule out other factors, such as the women’s ages, ethnicity, education, occupation and income, so that the effects of work hours on family could be studied in isolation.

“Work-family conflict is associated with increased psychological strain, with higher levels of stress and lower levels of well-being,” say the researchers. “Parents of young children are at particular risk of work-family conflict. Working conditions that are not flexible to these family demands, such as long working hours, could impact on a person’s stress reactions.

“Repeated stressful events arising from combinations of social and environmental stressors and major traumatic life events result in chronic stress, which in turn affects health.”

Chandola said: “The use of reduced hours and flexible work arrangements appeared to moderate some of the association of family and work stressors – but there was little evidence that flexplace or flexitime working arrangements were associated with lower chronic stress responses.”

Office design & mental health

A poll of 1,000 UK office workers by fit-out firm Saracen suggested that 76 per cent of workers found their dated or uninspiring office harmful to their productivity.

Thirty per cent cite the impact as high or significant, with only 12 per cent saying their dated office has little to zero impact on their work.

This issue is a hot topic at the water-cooler – at least half of the respondents claim co-workers have confided in them regarding the negative impact that their dated office is having on their productivity. 

Beyond productivity, the study looks at how dated offices affect workers’ mental well-being. Fifty-one per cent cite their uninspiring office as having a negative impact. 

Twenty per cent cite a high to significant impact, 24 per cent a medium impact, and a further 25 per cent say their dated office has some effect on their mental well-being. 

As with productivity, the study suggests that the effect of a dated office on employee mental well-being is being discussed between co-workers; 35 per cent say a colleague has confided in them about their office’s negative impact on mental well-being. 

Researchers reveal that the “most alarming area of the study was focused on the impact of a dated or uninspiring office on mental health, surprisingly with 37 per cent saying their dated office had contributed to actual mental health issues”.  

Emma Potter